Beyond the Lectionary Text: Daniel 1
by Joel Schreurs
There was a cheery sign beside the highway that led out of the small Midwestern town where I grew up. The purpose of the sign was, ostensibly, to thank visitors for coming and to encourage them to return soon. But according to my high school carpool buddy, Bryan, the sign also served a more important purpose: it marked the outer limits of our small town cops’ jurisdiction. Bryan, who always seemed to have the inside scoop on these sorts of things, claimed that if you were driving on the north side of the sign, all bets were off. The cops could (and would!) nab you for going fifty-six in a fifty-five. But if you were on the south side of the sign, you were off limits. The cops couldn’t touch you there. So every morning when we passed the sign going out of town, Bryan would gleefully punch the gas and take his little red Chevy well past the speed limit. And every afternoon, just before reentering what we believed to be the local police department’s jurisdiction, he would tap on the brakes and bring the car back under speed limit.
I doubt that Bryan had his legal facts straight. However, his understanding of jurisdiction is helpful when trying to enter into the world of Daniel 1. Because most people in Daniel’s world (including those who first read the book that bears his name) operated with a “theology of jurisdiction.” They tended to believe that there were many gods, and that each of these gods operated within a fairly limited jurisdiction. One god ruled the hills. Another ruled the valleys. One god ruled the sun. Another ruled the rain. One God ruled in Jerusalem. And others, it was believed, ruled in Babylon.
And of course, Babylon is where Daniel has found himself. And by all appearances, the God of Israel is not the one calling the shots in Babylon. (Judging by the condition of his temple (vs. 2), it would seem that he doesn’t even call the shots in Jerusalem anymore!) Instead, Nebuchadnezzar and his gods seem to be in charge.
And yet, Daniel and his friends refuse to settle for the way things appear to be. Instead, they insist that there is a hidden reality that is more true than the one that first meets the eye. They insist that, even in Babylon, God is still God, and they are still His people. This may be why the refuse to eat the food from the King’s table (even when doing so may cost them, at minimum, their place of comfort and privilege). While scholars are divided on this issue, commentators like Joyce Baldwin and W. Sibley Towner suggest that it may be that eating food from the kings table would have been a public declaration of entering into a covenant with him. In other words, if Daniel and his friends ate the king’s food, they would have been declaring themselves to be the king’s men. But they are servants of a different King–one who is enthroned in heaven and whose jurisdiction knows no limits–and so they insist on following him. Even in Babylon.
As people who are fed at the Table of King Jesus, may the same be said of us!
You would think a book with the title “Daniel” would be primarily about Daniel. But commentator Tremper Longman III reminds us that is not the case. “The Bible is a book about God,” he writes, and “Daniel is no exception.” (NIV Application Commentary, pg. 20.) While the narrator does frequently zoom in his camera and focus on the adventures of Daniel and his friends, he pulls it back just frequently enough to remind us that there is One working behind the scenes who is the true hero of the story. This message is implicit in the success Daniel and his friends experience with their dietary experiment. (While modern readers in a diet crazed culture might be tempted to conclude that Daniel was healthier because he ate only celery and broccoli, the ancient author surely intended us to see that he was healthy in spite of this choice.)
In Daniel 1, we also receive several more explicit reminders of God’s sovereignty. In 1:2, the biblical author reminds us that it was God who handed Jehoiakim and the people of Judah into Nebuchadnezzar’s hand. In 1:9, he states that was God who moved the royal official to show favor and compassion to Daniel. And in 1:17, he again points to God as the One who provided knowledge and success to Daniel. Again and again, we see that it is God who is at work in and through the life of Daniel.
This is the good news in which our calls to obedience must be rooted. Not in the promise of a short term payoff or a leg up for those who obey (for plenty of Psalms make clear that things do not always go well–at least in the short term–for those who obey in difficult circumstances!). But in the good news that God both is the primary actor and the author of our stories. He is ‘adonai (a name the biblical author likely chose to use because it emphasizes God’s power and control). He is in control. And in his death and resurrection Jesus has defeated the powers of sin and death. And our King now sits at the right hand of the Father and has all things under his feet. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Even in Babylon!
In a recent editorial in “Comment” magazine, James K.A. Smith observes that for many Christians, “compromise” has become a dirty word. The word evokes a sense of assimilation or surrender, it has come to mean giving up on one’s principles and giving in to the pressures of the world. “Indeed,” writes Smith, “resistance to compromise is behind our Sunday school rallying cry, ‘Dare to be a Daniel!’ Daniel is the poster boy of refusal to compromise”. (“Comment”, Spring 2014, pg. 2)
The only problem, of course, is that Daniel did compromise. True, Daniel refused to eat the King’s food. But in many ways, he seemed to be a willing–perhaps even an eager participant–in King Nebuchadnezzar’s propaganda program. When asked to take on a new name (one that was likely a prayer to Marduk, a favorite local god), Daniel did not protest. When he was offered a free ride to the University of Babylon and indoctrinated with the language and literature of the Chaldeans, he did not refuse. When he was pruned for a life of service in the court of a foreign King, he did not reject the opportunity. In an ideal world, notes Smith, Daniel would likely have refused these things. But Daniel did not live in an ideal world. He was in Babylon–not Zion. While Daniel knew that while he had to be faithful to the God of Zion even while he was in Babylon, he was under no illusion that he could make Babylon into Zion. That meant he had no choice but to pursue what Smith calls “faithful compromise.”
When preaching on Daniel 1, it is important to call our people to be faithful to God–wherever they find themselves. But it is perhaps equally important to acknowledge that there will be times when it is hard to discern exactly what faithfulness (or faithful compromise) looks like in a culture that can often be hostile. Where must we take a principled stand and declare, “Here I stand, I can do no other!”, and where may we have to resolve to live with less than our ideal?
Rev. Joel Schreurs is the pastor of First Christian Reformed Church, Denver, CO.